Vikram Seth: Love bade me welcome
Filed under: Biography
Vikram Seth describes the experience of living in George Herbert's house - RSL Review 2008
Vikram Seth describes, in prose and poetry, the experience of living in George Herbert’s rectory
A few years ago, I happened to be glancing through a friend’s newspaper when the words ‘George Herbert’ caught my eye. His rectory in Bemerton near Salisbury, where he had lived between 1630 and 1633, was on sale. I had no intention of buying it, but felt I had to go down to see the place where some of my favourite poems had been conceived and written.
The rectory faces the very small church of St Andrew’s. This is where Herbert preached and from where he tended his small flock of about 300 souls. His best-known prose work, The Country Parson, a guide to being a rural priest, was based on his experiences in Bemerton. It was to be his only parish, and he died here a month before his 40th birthday. To this day, despite the increase in the size of parishes and great changes in circumstances and atmosphere, it is widely read for its insight and advice.
I first came across George Herbert’s poetry in The Albatross Book of Verse, a popular anthology edited by the American poet and critic Louis Untermeyer. It had been given to my mother in Darjeeling on her eighteenth birthday; I requisitioned it and took it with me to my boarding school in Dehradun, where I dipped into it from time to time. I liked Herbert’s poems well enough but was more taken at the time by his wordplay (in poems such as Heaven and Paradise and The Pulley). It was some years later, when I was doing my English A-level at Tonbridge School in Kent, that I came across him again: a selection of his poetry edited by R.S. Thomas was one of our set texts.
I still have my copy of that slim volume, published by Faber, and well scored with my earnest and callow notations in red ball pen. I felt a great affinity for Herbert – for his clarity, his depth of feeling, his spiritual struggles (five of his poems are titled Affliction), his delight in the pleasures of nature and music, his wit, his strange juxtapositions, his decorous colloquiality. Indeed, though I am neither Christian nor particularly religious, he is still among my favourite poets – and it was this that induced me to tell the estate agents that I was ‘serious’ about viewing his house.
I went down to see the Old Rectory on an extremely rainy Sunday in June and immediately fell in love with it. The house, repaired and expanded by Herbert himself, is spacious but not grand – a rectory, not a manor. The garden stretches down to the River Nadder and there is a water-meadow beyond. Despite many doubts and difficulties, I did, finally and somehow, manage to buy it. At first, I used to imagine Herbert writing in the house, looking across towards the church porch – or walking across the fields to Salisbury Cathedral for evensong. After a while, I simply got used to the presence of my tactful host, who never tried to bully me into his philosophy or style.
Perhaps it was because of this that I was unresistingly drawn into writing a few poems modelled on his verse forms. I was in Delhi at the time I wrote these, rather than in Bemerton: such are the vagaries of inspiration. The six poems (under the title Shared Ground) were set to music by the composer Alec Roth and performed at the Salisbury, Chelsea and Lichfield festivals last year. The fourth of these poems, Host, is based on the alternating pentameter and trimeter of Love (III) (‘Love bade me welcome …’), perhaps the most wondrous of Herbert’s poems.
Inhabiting his rooms and stanzas, for all my trepidation, has not taken me away from myself. Whereas living in the house of some other favourite poet (Milton, for example) would have either driven me mad or made me a ventriloquist’s dummy or stopped me from writing altogether, that has not been so with Herbert. His presence and his poetry have been kindlier influences. It is not as if, by the nature of his argument, he directly tempers my turmoil; but that through his sense of sympathy and hard-earned stillness he makes it more possible to live with it.
I heard it was for sale and thought I’d go
To see the old house where
He lived three years, and died. How could I know
Its stones, its trees, its air,
The stream, the small church, the dark rain would say:
‘You’ve come; you’ve seen; now stay.’
‘A guest?’ I asked. ‘Yes, as you are on earth.’
‘The means?’ ‘. . . will come, don’t fear.’
‘What of the risk?’ ‘Our lives are that from birth.’
‘His ghost?’ ‘His soul is here.’
‘He’ll change my style.’ ‘Well, but you could do worse
Than rent his rooms of verse.’
Joy came, and grief; love came, and loss; three years –
Tiles down; moles up; drought; flood.
Though far in time and faith, I share his tears,
His hearth, his ground, his mud;
Yet my host stands just out of mind and sight,
That I may sit and write.
Vikram Seth’s book The Rivered Earth, published by Hamish Hamilton in November 2011, consists of four libretti he wrote to be set to music by Alec Roth, together with an account of the pleasures and pains of working with a composer. The second of these libretti consists of six poems: Host, published here, together with five others in forms used by George Herbert.